The 1970s Story Behind ‘God Save The Queen’

This is week 2 of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘.

A punk concert wouldn’t quite live up to the expectations of its mission if it didn’t end in police presence and arrests, as seen by many anarchical, boisterous bands through the latter half of the 20th century. However, one concert sets apart all the rest, taking place far from the good old British Terra Firma’s civilised grounds. 

On the 7th June 1977 crowds gathered on the UK streets, waving their tiny British flags to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, commemorating 25 years of her reign. All over television stations, horses trotting alongside a marvellous, golden carriage was broadcasted with the sound of Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!” to the British public from 10am. Elsewhere, however, an up-and-coming punk quartet was drafting plans for their own celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee. As dusk fell on British soil, the musical uprising had ignited on the sea. 

The Sex Pistols, armed with instruments, took to their boat concert on the Thames River just outside of Westminster Palace to consolidate their place as a real establishment irritant. Plans to circumvent a “ban” brought on their newly released track ‘God Save the Queen’ was a frustrating failure. Before the performance could proceed — and in true punk style— they were halted by authorities. 

At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, Britain was undergoing a national depression due to strikes, cuts and unemployment from a range of necessary services. This resulted in many having little to no income against the ever-increasing cost of living. Notably, due to the closure of coal mines and their workers’ strikes, a 3 day work week was implemented in the UK to conserve fuel, and due to this, it would be fair to say that economically, the 70s was a decade of discontent. However, all the social unrest had a silver lining to its dark cloud: an emerging punk scene, fronted by the Sex Pistols. 

Noted as one of the greatest youth subcultures of British history, the Sex Pistols quickly put both the punk genre and subculture on the map and ‘God Save the Queen’ was the chant of choice. This song blew up like a nuclear bomb, with its radiation still being felt today, expressing the pent up rage and frustration of a generation toward the British Monarchy and establishment. 

Just like many protest songs before them, ‘God Save the Queen’, in Johnny Rotten half-singing fashion, vocalised the feelings of alienation felt by the youth from the rule of what many would testify as an outdated, old-fashioned monarchy. Given the context of 70s Britain, poverty was too close to home for much of their youth. However, many felt it was a human truth the establishment could not be more out of touch with. 

Also, similar to John Fogerty, the Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) explained in an interview with Daniel Rachel (The Art of Noise; Conversations with Great Songwriters) that the thought process behind the song had taken some time to ferment in his brain: “‘God Save the Queen’ was running around in my mind for months, long before joining the Sex Pistols; the idea of being angry of the indifference of the Queen to the population and the aloofness and indifference to us as people.” It was also here that he claimed that as the Pistols came along, he penned the ruthless, raw and dirty track at his parent’s kitchen table over a bowl of baked beans, showing a sort of quirky honesty and unabashed side of his formidable character. 

Lydon also went onto explain in an episode of Channel 4’s X-Rated: TV They Tried to Ban, his still bubbling frustrations with the Monarchy, even decades on: “That woman has precious little to do with her so-called subjects other than ignored the hell out of us.” Lydon paused. “We’re just there to prop up her tiara.” 

Though being branded “degrading and disgusting” by a large portion of Britain’s elderly and conservative, Lydon managed to irk the establishment itself. James Whittaker, a Royal Commentator on the same show, stated: “We’d had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of course, who’d upset a few, but the sheer disgustingness of the Sex Pistols did offend a lot of people.”

However, Lydon argues that it wasn’t his intent to agitate the elderly or established but rather liberate the alienated and disillusioned: “…these things meant something; they weren’t just done for shock value. They have a point and a purpose.” Despite Lydon’s claims, it’s clear that the establishment was part of the demographic who interpreted the song as not only a mockery but an attack on their ruler and almost immediately, theories emerged of their revenge. 

Before the song’s release, EMI and A&M both abandoned the Pistols, branding them as trouble, but EMI’s loss was Richard Branson’s gain and ‘God Save the Queen’ was released on Virgin Records. Though superstores such as Woolworths and WH Smith refused to stock the single, there was a loophole irony in that by labelling it taboo, its value boomed, selling over 150,000 copies within the first week of release. Many disgraced pressing plant workers were so outraged that they threatened strikes. 

Outselling the number one song in the UK at the time, Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It/ The First Cut is the Deepest’ but conveniently and controversially stayed firmly put at number two, John Walters, a BBC Radio 1 producer, was confident that ‘God Save the Queen’ was destined to be number 1, as did a lot of his audience. Speculations surfaced, and claims of inside involvement that kept the song off of the number one spot due to establishment humiliation were brought to the fore. Claims from even the band themselves: “I think I was too damn close to the truth” Lydon began, “probably not getting it completely right but far too accurate for the establishment.”

Maybe, just maybe, this track was intended in sincerity to galvanise the working class and disillusioned youth. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, it was instead designed as an establishment mockery, but almost certainly—it succeeded at both. This unapologetic explosion of real, dirty rock with a visceral core sent shockwaves through a nation, and the ripples of its influence can still be felt today in whichever British city you choose to stomp. 

Photo Source: “SEX PISTOLS” by pupsy27 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 1960s Story Behind ‘Fortunate Son’

Welcome to the first track and week 1 of my Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade’. If you haven’t already, please check out the first article of the entire Music, Fashion and Politics: The Holy Trinity Project, ‘Music and Politics: An Abiding Affair’, that was published last Wednesday. This week we’ll be looking at the story behind Creedences’ iconic ‘Fortunate Son’ track that was both a ‘middle-finger’ and a ‘pat on the back’ for an entire nation.

On November 6th 2014, John Fogerty of the decade-defining band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, took to the stage at the White House to perform a unique rendition of his generational anthem—‘Fortunate Son’. This was part of a Salute to the Troops concert that was broadcast ahead of Veteran’s Day. Despite the obvious sincere intentions, the performance didn’t quite do the message of this instantly recognisable protest song justice. Shrouded in awkwardness from the very first thud of the overly sped-up drumbeat, it would not be unfair to say that the iconic song’s sparkle had been dulled.

This performance was a fresh, meaty steak awaiting the appetite of music critics who would not hold back from ravaging the overbearing timbre or its lacklustre energy. Despite this, the prominent viewer awkwardness lay elsewhere in the planes of something far less complex that lingers beneath not just a critic but a music lover’s nose: the meaning behind the song.

“It ain’t me”, Fogerty proclaims in this 1969 rock epic and immediately grabs the attention of a whole fervent generation. Though the song became a massive anthem for anti-war campaigning, it has always conveyed something more than that. It was more of an evocative symbol of a counterculture’s objection to U.S military involvement in Vietnam. A chance to unite and defend the troops in an attempt to protect those who were mainly of lower and working classes from fighting in a war that very few had a clear understanding of.

It’s not a song that is so much anti-war as it is anti-classist, criticising the system and political policies within the war: “The way I feel is we should make darn sure that when we’re going to have a war when we’re going to send our troops, it better be for a very good reason,” Fogerty explains in an interview with journalist, Dan Rather in 2016.

In the earlier years of America’s intervention in the Vietnam war, a vast majority of the nation whose support silenced the minority of those who questioned it. Still, as the decade progressed, voices of the quiet grew louder and, by the end, almost deafening. The nation began to lose faith in a victory, and with this came rising tensions and uncertainty as half a million troops stormed the jungles, from only a few thousand in the years previous.

It’s important to note that anti-war sentiment— although existing throughout the entire decade— had reached new heights in the later years, with the challenging of American tradition from university students and hippies forming a significant, youth- based movement. Despite this, in a speech on November 3rd 1969, Nixon declared that there was “a great silent majority” of people in support of the war and proceeded to call critics “unpatriotic elitists”. This ignited a flame in Creedence’s frontman, Fogerty, and in poetic retaliation, ‘Fortunate Son’ came to be— amplifying the voices of the many, not the few.

“It was written during the Nixon era, and well, let’s say I was very non-supportive of Mr Nixon,” Fogerty told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1993. “…the whole idea of being born wealthy or being born powerful seemed to be really coming to the fore in the late-sixties confrontation of cultures.” As a former military man himself, Fogerty’s anthem really insisted on highlighting the divide between rich and poor. War to the elite was merely a concept that they were willing to support, yet lower classes had to suffer the consequences of elitist decisions.

Fogerty’s irrepressible, raspy vocals against the backdrop of the tinny yet powerful guitar riff declaring sentiments that meant not only to him but to a whole generation makes it incredibly difficult to believe that the song was written in just 20 minutes. Yet, he claims that the thought process had been going on for a long time: “I didn’t know it would start, ‘Some folks are born…’— that came from nowhere. But the thought process had been going on for a long time.” He noted in his 2015 biography, titled after the very same song.

So that was precisely what made the Veteran’s Day performance so uncomfortable besides some artificial, musical blunders. It was simply the politics behind the song and the message that Fogerty was aiming to portray. There was a sort of un- comfortable irony in the fact that the famous lines “It ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son” were being echoed to a crowd of people in splendour. Their jewellery reflecting off of the stage lights as the tacky background of the White House lit up.

It has to be said that unlike most other protest songs of the time, such as those of Bob Dylan’s or Woody Guthrie’s, ‘Fortunate Son’ is the purest form of nitty-gritty, upbeat rock and roll. Because of this, there is inevitably room for misinterpretation. For some people, the melody subtracts from the message, almost getting lost in translation and spiralling out of context. Perhaps the 2014 audience can be forgiven for head-banging in their own hypocrisy but not one individual’s actions in more recent days.

In early September 2020, John Fogerty, in a baseball cap with protruding grey hairs, posted a video to his 1.2 million Facebook followers, addressing his discontent with then-President Donald Trump for using ‘Fortunate Son’ for his political rallies. Fogerty goes on to explain the meaning behind the song to his audience before stating: “The very first lines of fortunate son are ‘Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, they’re red, white and blue. But when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you’.”

“That is exactly what happened recently in Lafayette Park when the president decided to take a walk across the park, he cleared out the area using federal troops so that he could stand in front of St. John’s Church with a Bible,” Fogerty then went on to claim that it was a song that he could have written now and found it “confusing” that the president decided to use his song for his own political gain “when in fact, it seemed like he is probably the fortunate son.”

Regardless of the countless misinterpretations, the song’s message will continue on for those who dare to listen closely enough, valuing the song’s position in the context it was intended. Almost certainly, this will transport you into a world of long hair, long trousers and a longing for peace on Earth.

Photo Source: “Creedence Clearwater Revival, CCR – Willy & The Poor Boys” by Piano Piano! is licensed under CC BY 2.0